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December 18, 2009

Why a bias towards fiction is essential

Douglas Hunter’s recent article on readers’ bias toward fiction made me consider that literary non-fiction benefits from a reading public hungry for Wayne Rooney’s autobiographical volumes, Sarah Palin’s memoir, Eat Pray Love, The Secret, that book about the world’s worst dog, Skinny Bitch Bun in the Oven, and Mitch Albom no more than literary fiction does. In fact, literary non-fiction (which, according to Hunter, is usually about ice and written by men called Ken) probably ends up worse off, because “literary non-fiction” is not a term so flung around anyway, and most of us fictionish folks do imagine the Kens basking out there in the glow of bestsellerdom, along with Mitch Albom. Non-fiction sells; everybody knows that, and we’ve just never cared to break it down any further.

Hunter’s point that literary non-fiction gets short shrift is a valid one then, but I felt Canada Reads as his target was strangely misdirected. The point of Canada Reads is the novel, so it’s unsurprising that a word of non-fiction has never been included. Perhaps that a similar campaign does not exist for non-fiction makes more sense to consider, and Hunter does go on to show the underwhelming amount of attention paid to the Governor General Literary Award’s non-fiction nominees as opposed to the fiction, or to the Charles Taylor Prize compared to the Gillers.

But it is here that I want to stand up and state the importance of Canada Reads being about fiction, and the importance of fiction in general. Because there are certain instances in which a book is not just a book, and I think that a remarkable novel is one of them. There is an exercise in imagination necessary for fiction that non-fiction does not require, which is not to say that the latter is inferior, but rather that the effect of a group of people reading the former is a far more powerful thing. Reading not necessarily to learn, not to be transported to a place that has ever existed, sans political or cultural agenda (most ideally), to conjure a world that has been created out of air… and words. A book that exists for the sake of itself.

I think it’s important that if as a nation we’re to read just one book that that book be a novel. Perhaps my bias toward the authenticity of fiction is showing, but it has more potential to take us places together. One nation, one book, and that one novel will be a different book for everyone doesn’t matter any less, for that’s the very point of it.

One thought on “Why a bias towards fiction is essential”

  1. Julie Wilson says:

    Great points, Kerry. We also can't underestimate the impact that ample and extended conversation has on the sale of fiction, routinely far behind non-fiction in numbers.

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